Attention is the microscope of the mental eye. Its power may be high or low; its field of view narrow or broad. When high power is used attention is confined within very circumscribed limits, but its action is exceedingly intense and absorbing. It sees but few things, but these few are observed "through and through" ... Mental energy and activity, whether of perception or of thought, thus concentrated, act like the sun's rays concentrated by the burning glass. The object is illumined, heated, set on fire. Impressions are so deep that they can never be effaced. Attention of this sort is the prime condition of the most productive mental labor.
—Daniel Putnam, Psychology.
Try to rub the top of your head forward and backward at the same time that you are patting your chest. Unless your powers of coördination are well developed you will find it confusing, if not impossible. The brain needs special training before it can do two or more things efficiently at the same instant. It may seem like splitting a hair between its north and northwest corner, but some psychologists argue that no brain can think two distinct thoughts, absolutely simultaneously—that what seems to be simultaneous is really very rapid rotation from the first thought to the second and back again, just as in the above-cited experiment the attention must shift from one hand to the other until one or the other movement becomes partly or wholly automatic.
Whatever is the psychological truth of this contention it is undeniable that the mind measurably loses grip on one idea the moment the attention is projected decidedly ahead to a second or a third idea.
A fault in public speakers that is as pernicious as it is common is that they try to think of the succeeding sentence while still uttering the former, and in this way their concentration trails off; in consequence, they start their sentences strongly and end them weakly. In a well-prepared written speech the emphatic word usually comes at one end of the sentence. But an emphatic word needs emphatic expression, and this is precisely what it does not get when concentration flags by leaping too soon to that which is next to be uttered. Concentrate all your mental energies on the present sentence. Remember that the mind of your audience follows yours very closely, and if you withdraw your attention from what you are saying to what you are going to say, your audience will also withdraw theirs. They may not do so consciously and deliberately, but they will surely cease to give importance to the things that you yourself slight. It is fatal to either the actor or the speaker to cross his bridges too soon.
Of course, all this is not to say that in the natural pauses of your speech you are not to take swift forward surveys—they are as important as the forward look in driving a motor car; the caution is of quite another sort: while speaking one sentence do not think of the sentence to follow. Let it come from its proper source—within yourself. You cannot deliver a broadside without concentrated force—that is what produces the explosion. In preparation you store and concentrate thought and feeling; in the pauses during delivery you swiftly look ahead and gather yourself for effective attack; during the moments of actual speech, SPEAK—DON'T ANTICIPATE. Divide your attention and you divide your power.
This matter of the effect of the inner man upon the outer needs a further word here, particularly as touching concentration.
"What do you read, my lord?" Hamlet replied, "Words. Words. Words." That is a world-old trouble. The mechanical calling of words is not expression, by a long stretch. Did you ever notice how hollow a memorized speech usually sounds? You have listened to the ranting, mechanical cadence of inefficient actors, lawyers and preachers. Their trouble is a mental one—they are not concentratedly thinking thoughts that cause words to issue with sincerity and conviction, but are merely enunciating word-sounds mechanically. Painful experience alike to audience and to speaker! A parrot is equally eloquent. Again let Shakespeare instruct us, this tune in the insincere prayer of the King, Hamlet's uncle. He laments thus pointedly:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
The truth is, that as a speaker your words must be born again every time they are spoken, then they will not suffer in their utterance, even though perforce committed to memory and repeated, like Dr. Russell Conwell's lecture, "Acres of Diamonds," five thousand times. Such speeches lose nothing by repetition for the perfectly patent reason that they arise from concentrated thought and feeling and not a mere necessity for saying something—which usually means anything, and that, in turn, is tantamount to nothing. If the thought beneath your words is warm, fresh, spontaneous, a part of your self, your utterance will have breath and life. Words are only a result. Do not try to get the result without stimulating the cause.
Do you ask how to concentrate? Think of the word itself, and of its philological brother, concentric. Think of how a lens gathers and concenters the rays of light within a given circle. It centers them by a process of withdrawal. It may seem like a harsh saying, but the man who cannot concentrate is either weak of will, a nervous wreck, or has never learned what will-power is good for.
You must concentrate by resolutely withdrawing your attention from everything else. If you concentrate your thought on a pain which may be afflicting you, that pain will grow more intense. "Count your blessings" and they will multiply. Center your thought on your strokes and your tennis play will gradually improve. To concentrate is simply to attend to one thing, and attend to nothing else. If you find that you cannot do that, there is something wrong—attend to that first. Remove the cause and the symptom will disappear. Read the chapter on "Will Power." Cultivate your will by willing and then doing, at all costs. Concentrate—and you will win.
QUESTIONS AND EXERCISES
1. Select from any source several sentences suitable for speaking aloud; deliver them first in the manner condemned in this chapter, and second with due regard for emphasis toward the close of each sentence.
2. Put into about one hundred words your impression of the effect produced.
3. Tell of any peculiar methods you may have observed or heard of by which speakers have sought to aid their powers of concentration, such as looking fixedly at a blank spot in the ceiling, or twisting a watch charm.
4. What effect do such habits have on the audience?
5. What relation does pause bear to concentration?
6. Tell why concentration naturally helps a speaker to change pitch, tempo, and emphasis.
7. Read the following selection through to get its meaning and spirit clearly in your mind. Then read it aloud, concentrating solely on the thought that you are expressing—do not trouble about the sentence or thought that is coming. Half the troubles of mankind arise from anticipating trials that never occur. Avoid this in speaking. Make the end of your sentences just as strong as the beginning. CONCENTRATE.
The last of the savage instincts is war. The cave man's club made law and procured food. Might decreed right. Warriors were saviours.
In Nazareth a carpenter laid down the saw and preached the brotherhood of man. Twelve centuries afterwards his followers marched to the Holy Land to destroy all who differed with them in the worship of the God of Love. Triumphantly they wrote "In Solomon's Porch and in his temple our men rode in the blood of the Saracens up to the knees of their horses."
History is an appalling tale of war. In the seventeenth century Germany, France, Sweden, and Spain warred for thirty years. At Magdeburg 30,000 out of 36,000 were killed regardless of sex or age. In Germany schools were closed for a third of a century, homes burned, women outraged, towns demolished, and the untilled land became a wilderness.
Two-thirds of Germany's property was destroyed and 18,000,000 of her citizens were killed, because men quarrelled about the way to glorify "The Prince of Peace." Marching through rain and snow, sleeping on the ground, eating stale food or starving, contracting diseases and facing guns that fire six hundred times a minute, for fifty cents a day—this is the soldier's life.
At the window sits the widowed mother crying. Little children with tearful faces pressed against the pane watch and wait. Their means of livelihood, their home, their happiness is gone. Fatherless children, broken-hearted women, sick, disabled and dead men—this is the wage of war.
We spend more money preparing men to kill each other than we do in teaching them to live. We spend more money building one battleship than in the annual maintenance of all our state universities. The financial loss resulting from destroying one another's homes in the civil war would have built 15,000,000 houses, each costing $2,000. We pray for love but prepare for hate. We preach peace but equip for war.
Were half the power that fills the world with terror,
Were half the wealth bestowed on camp and court
Given to redeem this world from error,
There would be no need of arsenal and fort.
War only defers a question. No issue will ever really be settled until it is settled rightly. Like rival "gun gangs" in a back alley, the nations of the world, through the bloody ages, have fought over their differences. Denver cannot fight Chicago and Iowa cannot fight Ohio. Why should Germany be permitted to fight France, or Bulgaria fight Turkey?
When mankind rises above creeds, colors and countries, when we are citizens, not of a nation, but of the world, the armies and navies of the earth will constitute an international police force to preserve the peace and the dove will take the eagle's place.
Our differences will be settled by an international court with the power to enforce its mandates. In times of peace prepare for peace. The wages of war are the wages of sin, and the "wages of sin is death."
—Editorial by D.C., Leslie's Weekly; used by permission.
However, 'tis expedient to be wary:
Indifference, certes, don't produce distress;
And rash enthusiasm in good society
Were nothing but a moral inebriety.
—Byron, Don Juan.
You have attended plays that seemed fair, yet they did not move you, grip you. In theatrical parlance, they failed to "get over," which means that their message did not get over the foot-lights to the audience. There was no punch, no jab to them—they had no force.
Of course, all this spells disaster, in big letters, not only in a stage production but in any platform effort. Every such presentation exists solely for the audience, and if it fails to hit them—and the expression is a good one—it has no excuse for living; nor will it live long.
What is Force?
Some of our most obvious words open up secret meanings under scrutiny, and this is one of them.
To begin with, we must recognize the distinction between inner and outer force. The one is cause, the other effect. The one is spiritual, the other physical. In this important particular, animate force differs from inanimate force—the power of man, coming from within and expressing itself outwardly, is of another sort from the force of Shimose powder, which awaits some influence from without to explode it. However susceptive to outside stimuli, the true source of power in man lies within himself. This may seem like "mere psychology," but it has an intensely practical bearing on public speaking, as will appear.
Not only must we discern the difference between human force and mere physical force, but we must not confuse its real essence with some of the things that may—and may not—accompany it. For example, loudness is not force, though force at times may be attended by noise. Mere roaring never made a good speech, yet there are moments—moments, mind you, not minutes—when big voice power may be used with tremendous effect.
Nor is violent motion force—yet force may result in violent motion. Hamlet counseled the players:
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness. Oh, it offends me to the soul, to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings; who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb show, and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o'er-doing Termagant; it out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.
Be not too tame, neither, but let your discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature; for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first, and now, was, and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to Nature, to show Virtue her own feature, Scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now, this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must, in your allowance, o'erweigh a whole theater of others. Oh, there be players that I have seen play—and heard others praise, and that highly—not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, or man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.
Force is both a cause and an effect. Inner force, which must precede outer force, is a combination of four elements, acting progressively. First of all, force arises from conviction. You must be convinced of the truth, or the importance, or the meaning, of what you are about to say before you can give it forceful delivery. It must lay strong hold upon your convictions before it can grip your audience. Conviction convinces.
The Saturday Evening Post in an article on "England's T.R."—Winston Spencer Churchill—attributed much of Churchill's and Roosevelt's public platform success to their forceful delivery. No matter what is in hand, these men make themselves believe for the time being that that one thing is the most important on earth. Hence they speak to their audiences in a Do-this-or-you-PERISH manner.
That kind of speaking wins, and it is that virile, strenuous, aggressive attitude which both distinguishes and maintains the platform careers of our greatest leaders.
But let us look a little closer at the origins of inner force. How does conviction affect the man who feels it? We have answered the inquiry in the very question itself—he feels it: Conviction produces emotional tension. Study the pictures of Theodore Roosevelt and of Billy Sunday in action—action is the word. Note the tension of their jaw muscles, the taut lines of sinews in their entire bodies when reaching a climax of force. Moral and physical force are alike in being both preceded and accompanied by in-tens-ity—tension—tightness of the cords of power.
It is this tautness of the bow-string, this knotting of the muscles, this contraction before the spring, that makes an audience feel—almost see—the reserve power in a speaker. In some really wonderful way it is more what a speaker does not say and do that reveals the dynamo within. Anything may come from such stored-up force once it is let loose; and that keeps an audience alert, hanging on the lips of a speaker for his next word. After all, it is all a question of manhood, for a stuffed doll has neither convictions nor emotional tension. If you are upholstered with sawdust, keep off the platform, for your own speech will puncture you.
Growing out of this conviction-tension comes resolve to make the audience share that conviction-tension. Purpose is the backbone of force; without it speech is flabby—it may glitter, but it is the iridescence of the spineless jellyfish. You must hold fast to your resolve if you would hold fast to your audience.
Finally, all this conviction-tension-purpose is lifeless and useless unless it results in propulsion. You remember how Young in his wonderful "Night Thoughts" delineates the man who
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve,
Resolves, and re-resolves, and dies the same.
Let not your force "die a-borning,"—bring it to full life in its conviction, emotional tension, resolve, and propulsive power.
Can Force be Acquired?
Yes, if the acquirer has any such capacities as we have just outlined. How to acquire this vital factor is suggested in its very analysis: Live with your subject until you are convinced of its importance.
If your message does not of itself arouse you to tension, PULL yourself together. When a man faces the necessity of leaping across a crevasse he does not wait for inspiration, he wills his muscles into tensity for the spring—it is not without purpose that our English language uses the same word to depict a mighty though delicate steel contrivance and a quick leap through the air. Then resolve—and let it all end in actual punch.
This truth is worth reiteration: The man within is the final factor. He must supply the fuel. The audience, or even the man himself, may add the match—it matters little which, only so that there be fire. However skillfully your engine is constructed, however well it works, you will have no force if the fire has gone out under the boiler. It matters little how well you have mastered poise, pause, modulation, and tempo, if your speech lacks fire it is dead. Neither a dead engine nor a dead speech will move anybody.
Four factors of force are measurably within your control, and in that far may be acquired: ideas, feeling about the subject, wording, and delivery. Each of these is more or less fully discussed in this volume, except wording, which really requires a fuller rhetorical study than can here be ventured. It is, however, of the utmost importance that you should be aware of precisely how wording bears upon force in a sentence. Study "The Working Principles of Rhetoric," by John Franklin Genung, or the rhetorical treatises of Adams Sherman Hill, of Charles Sears Baldwin, or any others whose names may easily be learned from any teacher.
Here are a few suggestions on the use of words to attain force:
PLAIN words are more forceful than words less commonly used—juggle
has more vigor than prestidigitate.
SHORT words are stronger than long words—end has more directness than
SAXON words are usually more forceful than Latinistic words—for force,
use wars against rather than militate against.
SPECIFIC words are stronger than general words—pressman is more
definite than printer.
CONNOTATIVE words, those that suggest more than they say, have more
power than ordinary words—"She let herself be married" expresses more
than "She married."
EPITHETS, figuratively descriptive words, are more effective than direct
names—"Go tell that old fox," has more "punch" than "Go tell that
sly fellow." ONOMATOPOETIC words, words that convey the sense by the
sound, are more powerful than other words—crash is more effective
Arrangement of words
Cut out modifiers.
Cut out connectives.
Begin with words that demand attention.
"End with words that deserve distinction," says Prof. Barrett Wendell.
Set strong ideas over against weaker ones, so as to gain strength by the
Avoid elaborate sentence structure—short sentences are stronger than
Cut out every useless word, so as to give prominence to the really
Let each sentence be a condensed battering ram, swinging to its final
blow on the attention.
A familiar, homely idiom, if not worn by much use, is more effective
than a highly formal, scholarly expression.
Consider well the relative value of different positions in the sentence
so that you may give the prominent place to ideas you wish to emphasize.
"But," says someone, "is it not more honest to depend the inherent interest in a subject, its native truth, clearness and sincerity of presentation, and beauty of utterance, to win your audience? Why not charm men instead of capturing them by assault?"
Why Use Force?
There is much truth in such an appeal, but not all the truth. Clearness, persuasion, beauty, simple statement of truth, are all essential—indeed, they are all definite parts of a forceful presentment of a subject, without being the only parts. Strong meat may not be as attractive as ices, but all depends on the appetite and the stage of the meal.
You can not deliver an aggressive message with caressing little strokes. No! Jab it in with hard, swift solar plexus punches. You cannot strike fire from flint or from an audience with love taps. Say to a crowded theatre in a lackadaisical manner: "It seems to me that the house is on fire," and your announcement may be greeted with a laugh. If you flash out the words: "The house's on fire!" they will crush one another in getting to the exits.
The spirit and the language of force are definite with conviction. No immortal speech in literature contains such expressions as "it seems to me," "I should judge," "in my opinion," "I suppose," "perhaps it is true." The speeches that will live have been delivered by men ablaze with the courage of their convictions, who uttered their words as eternal truth. Of Jesus it was said that "the common people heard Him gladly." Why? "He taught them as one having AUTHORITY." An audience will never be moved by what "seems" to you to be truth or what in your "humble opinion" may be so. If you honestly can, assert convictions as your conclusions. Be sure you are right before you speak your speech, then utter your thoughts as though they were a Gibraltar of unimpeachable truth. Deliver them with the iron hand and confidence of a Cromwell. Assert them with the fire of authority. Pronounce them as an ultimatum. If you cannot speak with conviction, be silent.
What force did that young minister have who, fearing to be too dogmatic, thus exhorted his hearers: "My friends—as I assume that you are—it appears to be my duty to tell you that if you do not repent, so to speak, forsake your sins, as it were, and turn to righteousness, if I may so express it, you will be lost, in a measure"?
Effective speech must reflect the era. This is not a rose water age, and a tepid, half-hearted speech will not win. This is the century of trip hammers, of overland expresses that dash under cities and through mountain tunnels, and you must instill this spirit into your speech if you would move a popular audience. From a front seat listen to a first-class company present a modern Broadway drama—not a comedy, but a gripping, thrilling drama. Do not become absorbed in the story; reserve all your attention for the technique and the force of the acting. There is a kick and a crash as well as an infinitely subtle intensity in the big, climax-speeches that suggest this lesson: the same well-calculated, restrained, delicately shaded force would simply rivet your ideas in the minds of your audience. An air-gun will rattle bird-shot against a window pane—it takes a rifle to wing a bullet through plate glass and the oaken walls beyond.
When to Use Force
An audience is unlike the kingdom of heaven—the violent do not always take it by force. There are times when beauty and serenity should be the only bells in your chime. Force is only one of the great extremes of contrast—use neither it nor quiet utterance to the exclusion of other tones: be various, and in variety find even greater force than you could attain by attempting its constant use. If you are reading an essay on the beauties of the dawn, talking about the dainty bloom of a honey-suckle, or explaining the mechanism of a gas engine, a vigorous style of delivery is entirely out of place. But when you are appealing to wills and consciences for immediate action, forceful delivery wins. In such cases, consider the minds of your audience as so many safes that have been locked and the keys lost. Do not try to figure out the combinations. Pour a little nitro glycerine into the cracks and light the fuse. As these lines are being written a contractor down the street is clearing away the rocks with dynamite to lay the foundations for a great building. When you want to get action, do not fear to use dynamite.
The final argument for the effectiveness of force in public speech is the fact that everything must be enlarged for the purposes of the platform—that is why so few speeches read well in the reports on the morning after: statements appear crude and exaggerated because they are unaccompanied by the forceful delivery of a glowing speaker before an audience heated to attentive enthusiasm. So in preparing your speech you must not err on the side of mild statement—your audience will inevitably tone down your words in the cold grey of afterthought. When Phidias was criticised for the rough, bold outlines of a figure he had submitted in competition, he smiled and asked that his statue and the one wrought by his rival should be set upon the column for which the sculpture was destined. When this was done all the exaggerations and crudities, toned by distances, melted into exquisite grace of line and form. Each speech must be a special study in suitability and proportion.
Omit the thunder of delivery, if you will, but like Wendell Phillips put "silent lightning" into your speech. Make your thoughts breathe and your words burn. Birrell said: "Emerson writes like an electrical cat emitting sparks and shocks in every sentence." Go thou and speak likewise. Get the "big stick" into your delivery—be forceful.